Perhaps no other city makes one recall as fondly the spirit of the 1980s in Australia as Fremantle. It was from here, famously, that our successful America’s Cup challenge was launched. Even today walking around the place one can’t help but hum Men and Work nostalgically and imagine the ghosts of the go-getting entrepreneurs of that era hurrying by, eager to take advantage of a rapidly liberalising economy.

I was back that trendy harbour town last week to speak at a conference called, ‘The Road Ahead’. It brought together many of Australia’s leading centre-right think tanks and other aligned speakers. Many of those on the podium made their name in the much-fabled Hawke-Keating-Howard reform era. Many of their speeches, as is so often the case, concluded with a call for a return to the policy-making and governing philosophy of that time.

But, as the distance grows, I confess I have become increasingly critical of many aspects of the changes that these leaders introduced and their continuing relevance. This is not to say that certain adjustments and liberalisations were not appropriate and necessary to take advantage of that period of history. But increasingly I feel that what was put in place was only possible because of particular geopolitical circumstances, rather than a period when certain universal and permanent policy truths were discovered, as it is so often presented.

What is certain is that we now live in different times and a very different geopolitical environment. Different times call for different measures.

Any form of trade or industry intervention by government tends to be labelled as ‘old fashioned’ and ‘out of date’. But when one looks around the world today such policies are very much newly in vogue and increasingly appear the wave of the future.

In the United States there is a solid bipartisan commitment to maintain the tariffs on China and other countries imposed during the Trump Administration. There is also equally strong support for implementing industry plans such as President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. These policies are specifically designed to promote domestic manufacturing and sovereign industrial capabilities. Other major economies in Europe and elsewhere are also moving in a similar direction.

This is clearly a departure from the policy consensus we have been used to in Australia. But this not a temporary phase before normal programming resumes as some want to hope. It is also clear the need for change did not come out of a clear blue sky.

The promise of globalisation, and the rise of China in particular, has simply not panned out as many thought it would. Australia and our traditional allies have been deindustrialised beyond what should ever have been considered prudent. This, it is belatedly being recognised, has put both our long-term prosperity and national security at risk. The existing liberal economic and policy framework has also had societal impacts. It has ended up creating deep divisions not only in terms of wealth, but between those who seem to have more allegiance to international interests than the nation-state to which they are meant to belong.

It is this new reality that Anthony Albanese was referring to when he made the somewhat flippant remark that ‘the world is round, not flat, that’s why he’s wrong’ in response to Prof Gary Banks. The Prime Minister could have been clearer, but he was not literally calling the former head of the Productivity Commission a ‘flat Earther’. He was instead referencing New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s well-known book The World Is Flat of the early 2000s. That work has come to be seen, in retrospect, as having a widely overly optimistic take on the realities of a borderless ‘flat’ economic world.

The Prime Minister is broadly correct that ‘we need to be willing to break with old orthodoxies and pull new levers to advance the national ­interest’. That, of course, does not mean one cannot still have legitimate criticisms about the specific ‘Future Made in Australia’ plans and whether the Albanese government is going about addressing the current challenges in the right way. I certainly question both the focus of some of these plans as well as the competency of those charged with implementing them.

But to my mind there is also a bigger issue which neither political party in Australia has yet to properly come to terms with – the need for a revision of many of our trade agreements particularly with China. The United States and other countries have recognised this. We need to as well.

As some of us have been arguing for quite some time, it is simply delusional to believe that Australia can have any significant manufacturing industry while we allow nearly all manufactured goods to be imported from China and other similar countries duty-free. Unless this is addressed all ambitious dreams to build stuff in Australia – whether they be nuclear-powered or solar-powered – will come to naught.

The success of our America’s Cup team in 1983 was no sure thing. It only came about because of home-grown Australian technology and industrial know-how. It only happened because we decided to do things differently than we had previously. It was only possible because the skipper skilfully recognised, in the final race when all seemed lost, that he was sailing in a new environment and there was a need to chart a different course.

Dan Ryan is executive director of newly established The National Conservative Institute of Australia. He worked as a lawyer for over 15 years in Greater China and was formally a board member of the Australia-China Council. He chaired the session with Prof Gary Banks at the above-mentioned ‘The Road Ahead’ conference.

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